I grew up the eldest of four to immigrant parents who owned a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall in suburban Long Island, New York. My siblings and I were what we call “take out kids.” We were the kids who were raised behind a Formica counter that hid boxes of fortune cookies and duck sauce. The ones doing homework in heavy winter coats at the rickety tables you could barely see through the fogged-over glass. The children playing in shopping center parking lots when the dinner rush died down and everyone else was home. Our futures were a symbol of hope to parents who came to this country for more ― something beyond the hard labor of high-volume, low-cost restaurant life.
This was a life that put them out on the streets delivering in blizzards and floods for $2 tips, flipping food over open flames in the dead heat of summer and conducting business as usual every day of the year in a monotonous, dark comedy kind of hopeless struggle. Holidays meant nothing to us ― Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, let alone the Fourth of July or Memorial Day ― because we didn’t exactly have them.
Except for Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving was sacred to us. It was the only day of the year the exhaust fans were silenced and the lights turned off. The only day of the year all six of us spent in leisure as a family, present for one another and having conversations instead of just barking orders while trying to feed a faceless stream of hangry strangers. And it became the only day of the year my father was able to share his dreams for us, a real American dream: a better life for his kids than what he was resigned to.
“My siblings and I were what we call 'take out kids.' We were the kids who were raised behind a Formica counter that hid boxes of fortune cookies and duck sauce.”
So nearly every Thanksgiving, from the time we were old enough to understand what the promise the stereotypical emphasis on education meant, we were bundled up and herded into our beat-up minivan as our father took to the road, like the more than 50 million Americans who do so annually. But our destination wasn’t a dinner table creaking from the bounty of this land of plenty. For about a decade, my family spent almost every Thanksgiving Day visiting different universities in driving distance of our home base in Suffolk County, and we’d wander aimlessly around the deserted campus of a college our dad wanted on our radars in the hopes that we could see ourselves there.
My father never had a map or any particular direction. My parents weren’t planners ― they simply didn’t have the time when opening hours were roughly 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. My dad would pick a school, or as we got older, we would suggest one, and he’d drive in that general direction, park somewhere close by, and we’d see where the frigid November winds would take us. We’d read signs to see if what we were looking at was, in fact, part of the school, and then afterward, drive in no particular route around the perimeter of the established campus to “check out the college town.”
Before all that, for the bulk of my childhood, we used to go to Chinatown in Manhattan for Thanksgiving, or Flushing in Queens. Instead of eating dim sum in the morning ― our cultural equivalent to Sunday brunch, the only type of family meal our budget and working hours would allow during the year ― we did something different. Instead, we would sleep through the morning, then head out to drive around New York City pointing at landmarks we never had time to actually visit. Then my dad would treat the family to a dinner of Peking duck ― not turkey ― at a formal Chinese restaurant. His one-day respite from cooking as we enjoyed the only evening meal a year we truly ate together. And that was all that was on the agenda.
That is, until I reached high school age and, because I was the firstborn, college years were finally visible on the horizon. We started with NYU. It was close enough to the restaurants we’d go to for dinner ― and therefore close enough to make going “away” to school a bit more palatable for my mother.
We parked for free and without struggle (for a change) a few blocks from Washington Square in Greenwich Village and made our way, a motley crew, to the spread-out campus. We’d roll out of our dented Ford Windstar, tired from the hourlong ride out from the middle of Long Island, drowsy from napping in the General Tso’s- and cooking oil-scented upholstery, and shuffle aimlessly in the chill air as my dad would herd us from one building to another as he spotted them, reading off the placards.
“Stern School of Business,” he would announce proudly, as if he didn’t just stumble upon it. “One of the best business schools in America,” he’d nod approvingly. Like a herd of sheep, we’d nod in unison, humoring him.
“Thanksgiving was sacred to us. It was the only day of the year the exhaust fans were silenced and the lights turned off. The only day of the year all six of us spent in leisure as a family.”
“Columbia University,” he proclaimed another year, pronouncing it “coh-LAHM-bia” in his faintly accented English. “Ivy League!” he kept saying as we walked across the quads. After a respectful moment of silence at the base of Columbia’s library, he told us, “You can go inside when you get accepted.”
He said it with certainty, and it was that optimism that defined what the possibilities were. That steadfast belief that made us feel that college was a matter of course, that the question wasn’t “if,” but rather “when” we did. After all, although he wasn’t a die-hard, zealous patriot, this was America ― the land of hopes and dreams.
Another year: “Barnard. You can apply here and take classes at Columbia, still have a Columbia degree,” he told us. “Better chance, try for both.”
We began to venture farther as the youngest, my brother nine years my junior, got old enough to withstand longer car trips. We traveled to Philadelphia, not to see the Rocky statue or the Liberty Bell, or to have a cheesesteak, but to visit UPenn. During the drive, we listened to the stats he’d rattle off excitedly as he tried to hype us up for another solemn walk through empty quads.
“Benjamin Franklin’s school,” he told us authoritatively. “Top 10 in the United States, and Ivy,” he’d say, pronouncing it I.V. “Less than 10% acceptance, and even harder to get into Whar-tuhn Business School.”
“But you can do it,” chimed in my mother, encouragingly, warmly and without any hint of stereotypical “tiger mom” ferocity. While my father’s support was more of an “obviously, duh” approach toward our future success, hers was always soft, her hopes for us simply health and enough financial security not to have to worry about being able to afford oil drops for heat in the winter, as they had to now.
“Of course they can do it,” my dad agreed. After all, he wouldn’t have taken the drive if he didn’t see it in the realm of possibility. “Here, you work hard, you can do anything.”
“Unlike the majority of college-aged kids in America, our grand academic tour took a decade rather than several straight days of immersion or a few weekends here and there.”
These Thanksgiving drives shaped us.
Unlike the majority of college-age kids in America, our grand academic tour took a decade rather than several straight days of immersion or a few weekends here and there. We applied blindly to schools based on recited rankings, then made requests to visit when certain ones caught our eyes.
But the caliber of schools chosen, the unwavering confidence my parents had that we would go top tier by visiting only top-tier universities, that provided us with the confidence to set them as attainable goals. The hopeful ― not stressful ― expectation of college as a natural next step gave us that Suessian, “Oh, the places you’ll go!” thrill. And this rich menu of higher learning gave us a sense of belonging that superseded the privilege, the financials and the other concerns that many other blue-collar kids had. Those limitations meant nothing to us, as indoctrinated as we became in my parents’ unshakable belief that in the U.S., you can do anything if you put in the effort and try hard enough.
Our growing radius of college travel gave us a sense of adventure too. A fearlessness toward starting a new life in a new place, that it was exciting and not scary to be away from home. The whole ride back, my father would excitedly speculate what life would be like as the student he never got to be. It’s because of these trips, these out-loud imaginings, that we were unafraid to branch out on our own with the confidence that we could shape our lives as we liked. Because again, this was America, “the beautiful country,” where we could move freely in pursuit of a better life at any given time.
“On these trips, my father would excitedly speculate what life would be like as the student he never got to be.”
This was how they loved us. This was how they showed us what being born American was, and how to give thanks for that. After all, they didn’t know anything else it could mean.
They weren’t grandfathered into roasted turkey and cranberry sauce traditions, didn’t know much about how Americans lived on a day-to-day basis or what they did on holidays beyond a limited range of movies they rarely watched. Isolated from the predominantly Irish and Italian blue-collar community we lived in by barriers of language, time and just straight-up prejudice, they had no access to learn about the cultures of the families around us. Symbols of the holiday were all they were exposed to, through store merchandise displays and assignments we brought home as children.
My mom came when she was 12 with her three siblings and parents in a bid to escape poverty, leaving Fuzhou by way of Hong Kong. When they immigrated, her family lived in a bedroom of a house they shared with several other families, all of whom dreamed no bigger than to be a line cook at their own Chinese restaurant instead of somebody else’s, and maybe have a home of their own. She went to community college, but her education ended there as she focused her attention on helping her younger siblings do better.
My father came to the States at the age of 18 from a small agricultural village to study physics at Hunter College in New York City. He was unable to finish his education, and his dreams of leaving farm life for learning were dashed as funding ran out and he was forced to work as a dishwasher in a Manhattan restaurant. It was an upgrade when word of mouth got him into a Chinese restaurant in suburban Long Island, where his co-workers at least spoke one of his several languages and he could earn their respect for his intelligence.
“This was how my parents showed us what being born American was, and how to give thanks for that. After all, they didn’t know anything else it could mean.”
By the time we were born, like so many other first-wave immigrants, they had long given up on themselves. The sky was not the limit anymore; it was too late for them. But if their kids could have a better life, one with paid time off, medical benefits, one where we could make a living with our brains and not brawn alone … well, it would all be worth it as they lived their expired wishes vicariously through us.
School was important ― it was a way out. We studied hard because we were told, as we grew up scooping rice and wrapping wontons, that this would be our life if we didn’t. They put a fire in our bellies, a fear and desperation to do more with our lives or live this way forever. Just one day off a year.
But if we went to a good university, made the right connections and studied hard, we’d become part of the mental labor force instead of the manual one. It would be an easier, safer life. Working in a white collar profession would mean that my parents’ sacrifices were worth it, that their dreams would still be fulfilled, in a way. It would mean we would become more than second-class citizens by becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants and even writers, and perhaps one day be able to assimilate and even be invited into Americana like the Thanksgiving turkey dinners we never had.
My little brother, the baby of the family, finished college five years ago. I graduated from Tulane University in January 2007, a full dozen years now past. Since then, my sisters have achieved bachelor’s and master’s degrees at prestigious schools ― Brown University, Williams College, the University of Chicago, UMass Amherst ― even more afield than where these annual drives could take us. And as our travels take us farther, we all still find ourselves drawn to institutions of higher learning and think of our Thanksgiving outings when we see them, from Trinity College in Dublin to the Sorbonne in Paris.
So it’s been a long time since we went college shopping for Thanksgiving. But even though my parents are now retired, staying home for the holiday still feels foreign. I find myself itching to hit the road as dry brown leaves begin to drift down to frost-kissed grass, drive at an academic landmark, and spend a day walking through meandering pathways that connect hallowed halls. To stay put on Thanksgiving feels less than instinctual; to have dinner as the headline event, as discombobulating as not having gravy with your turkey or pie as dessert.
“To me, Thanksgiving is not so much a holiday for feasting, but a time to reach for the stars with the faith and support of your family.”
Regardless, every fall imbues me with a sense of hope and anticipation. We may not spend it together anymore, cramped and elbowing each other in the back seats of a janky van with the heat blasting. My siblings and I have scattered, and we don’t see each other that often. Now that my parents have retired, it’s not so uncommon to go out for Peking duck on a night they feel up to the drive to Queens.
But around this time of year, my thoughts turn optimistically to the future. It’s not spring that calls to me as the season for renewal. It’s fall still that drives me to ponder possibility.
To me, Thanksgiving is not so much a holiday for feasting, but a time to reach for the stars with the faith and support of your family, no matter where they might be.
So despite this entirely untraditional way of spending this holiday, I can’t think of a more American way to do so. A hope, a dream ― a land of opportunities to be thankful for.
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